Here at Sports Info Solutions, we have lots of data. One subset of data we have is MLB Draft data. In exploring it, it got me thinking: which teams are the best at drafting players who end up producing lots of Defensive Runs Saved for the team that drafted them?
Here are the top five and bottom five teams since we began tracking DRS in 2003.
A lot of this checks out; the Cardinals are known for prioritizing good defense and also home-grow lots of players. On the other side of things, the Pirates have had a lot of really bad teams since 2003, and really bad teams tend to have really bad defenses.
Now, let’s take a look at who the main contributors and culprits are for the top and bottom teams. Let’s start with the good: who’s padded that Cardinals number? Keep in mind there are plenty of other players who’ve posted a positive DRS, and also a handful whose DRS is negative.
Just about every national broadcast–and Cardinals broadcast to boot–finds a way to talk about how good Molina’s defense is, and with good reason: he’s really good! More than any other aspect of his game, Molina’s value has come from throwing out runners on the bases, having saved 54 runs doing so. But he also excels at making Good Fielding Plays without making many Defensive Misplays or Errors (46 GFP/DME Runs Saved) and framing pitches (41 Strike Zone Runs Saved).
Now with the Angels, Pujols is no longer the relatively fleet-of-foot multi-positional star he once was, but back in the day, he was the guy on defense. His 2007 season, in which he saved 31 runs, remains the single-season DRS zenith for a first baseman. Since DRS started in 2003, we’ll never know what Pujols’ all-over-the-diamond rookie season was like, but, for what it’s worth, most of his value came from his time at first base: he’s at -4 in left field from his time there in 2003, and at a net zero at 3B (-1 in his last season with the Cardinals, +1 in his first season with the Angels). Even without Pujols, though, the Cardinals would still be the sixth-best team; that’s how good they’ve been at drafting MLB-quality bats who can also produce positive defense.
And now, for the not so good. Here are the five biggest culprits of the Pirates’ league-low defensive drafting.
McCutchen was a perfectly adequate center fielder in his first five years in the majors, with a DRS of -5; not good, but not horrible. It’s his last four years as a Pirate that really tanked his defensive value, with seasons of -13, -8, -28 and -16. He wasn’t even close to average in any direction in those last four seasons in Pittsburgh; his total Plays Saved in that time was -14 on shallow fly balls, -15 on medium fly balls, and a staggeringly low -28 on deep fly balls.
For Bautista–the very same player who ended up slugging hundreds of memorable home runs while finding a home in right field as a Blue Jay–the main issue was in his time at third base. From 2006-07, he played about 1,300 innings at the hot corner, and combined to put up a -34 Plays Saved, including -11 on just 82 total defensive chances in 2006. His time in center field didn’t help either, where his DRS in 2006 was -10.
Teams draft players based on not just offense, but projected defensive contribution as well, and while teams may be willing to give up a little bit on the defensive side of the ball when they have hitters as good as McCutchen, most teams can’t afford to. When looking at all 30 teams, it’s no surprise that the Cardinals are competitive just about every year, racking up homegrown DRS like nobody else. On the flip side, the teams at the bottom of the list are going to need better defense from their draftees.